World Snow Festival 2018

19 Jan

Today I had a day off and, rather than spending the day at home not doing very much, I decided to get out of the house and explore some of Switzerland. If I am brutally honest, I haven’t explored Switzerland half as much as I would like to. It was the perfect opportunity to start to rectify this.

Completely by chance, I saw what this week the World Snow Festival was being held in Grindelwald. So, I decided to head out to see it. It took quite a few train changes to get there but, as I had the whole day to myself, it didn’t really matter. The information on the website was that there were 14 international teams who would be entering. Their task was to make sculptures from snow. The public and a panel of judges could vote for their favourite.

I was quite surprised by how much snow there was as I was heading away from Zurich. Even though it was colder, it was still possible to see a small bit of blue sky poking through the clouds and by the early afternoon the skies were beginning to brighten slightly.

After finally arriving at my final destination, I was more than a bit disappointed. When you hear the word Festival, certain images come to mind, like activities to do and see as well as sights, smells and sounds. The Festival itself was located at the main bus stop next to the train station in Grindelwald. The sculptures were just dotted out where people were waiting for their bus.

And that was it. No more information apart from the information that the teams had written about what they had built and the obligatory plea to beg you to vote for them. It wasn’t clear to me where you could actually vote. No one from the tourist board or the team was there to give more information about the competition. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. So I didn’t vote.

The Slovakian team would have got my vote. Here is their entry.

Yes, it is Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel, from IceAge who spends his life chasing after an elusive acorn; completely inspired choice of entry! I have no idea how they made it or how long it took but hats off to them.

It struck me that this was a real shame that something that is published on the official Swiss Tourism website isn’t a bit better organised and there aren’t any engaging activities for visitors.

Tonight is the prize giving for the winners so I would imagine that the atmosphere then is a lot different. It could just be that I went at the wrong time. Also it isn’t like Grindelwald is scrapping the barrel for visitors. People flock there every day because it really is stunning. See this photo that I took at the train station before I left to see what I mean.

40 Before 40: Challenge #1

17 Jan

My first challenge for my #40Before40 is to pass the C2 Goethe German exam. On the European Framework of Languages this is the highest level and means that you are almost on the same level and understanding as a native speaker.

One of the reasons I moved to Switzerland was to learn a language. A lot of people I know, and I mean mainly British expats, don’t bother to learn the local languages. It is possible to survive working here in an international company where the preferred language is English. However, I feel it is a bit of a shame not to try to learn it because, I believe, your experience will be much better for it.

That is not to say that it is easy. I came here not knowing a word of German and now I still don’t think I know any of it some days. It requires a huge investment of time, brain power and perseverance. So, I have worked doggedly for the best part of four years and slowly but surely I am getting there.

I have now finished my C1 course. So that means I am one more level away from completing this challenge. If you have every been stuck on a level in Candy Crush, you will know that “just completing one more level” is not as easy as it sounds. I will begin the C2 level when I am back from my travels in March.

To become even a little bit closer to being considered as a native speaker, I know that I have to improve quite a bit. Mistakes are not looked upon kindly in the exam. Also I know that I need to work on managing my stress levels in the build up to the exam because it is pretty unbearable how stress I manage to get myself. I dare say it is worse for people who know me.

I am under no illusions that this could be hard to achieve but I am going to give it my best shot and see what happens. I have got this far so that has to mean something.

One thing that I found equally laughable and endearing is that a colleague of mine confessed that I have inspired her to take her German exams as well. I never thought that I would inspired anyone to do anything, let alone take German exams. From the sound of it, she is doing more work and preparation than I have for the last four years.

But as a former boss of mine once said: You only need to be one mark above the pass mark. Everything else is wasted effort.

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Travel preparations

13 Jan

As you may or may not know, I love to travel. Since I first set off on a solo trip to Peru in 2011, I haven’t stopped exploring. In my case, it is certainly true when people say that travelling is a bug that you catch. I enjoying seeing other parts of the world and seeing how other people live. As well as trying different types of food, of course.

Soon I will be heading off on another adventure. This one will be longer than I have ever done before. It will be 35 days, in fact, and we will be visiting five different countries in South America. We have already booked all of the flights, buses, boats and hotels.

I find preparing for the travel almost as exciting as the travelling itself. I can spend hours pouring over books, the Internet and asking people for suggestions and recommendations. It’s so much fun to thinking that in a few weeks you will be doing X, Y or Z, or even all three!

One part of travelling that I am not such a fan of is the packing. For a beach holiday, a weekend away or going back home, I can cope. Just throw some things in a suitcase and off you go. It’s only for a couple of weeks or days so there is not a lot of planning needed.

For five weeks on the road, spending only a few days in each place, it is a bit more difficult. I have found in a lot of my recent trips that I tend to panic just before I am about to leave the house and end up throwing things into the bag because I am convinced that I might need a heavy-duty rain jacket in South Africa in summer or I should definitely pack that exfoliating face pack from the bathroom because that would really be useful while camping in the wild in Botswana. Incidentally, I have stopped taking makeup with me on holidays where the weather is hot because I realised it is a waste of time to think that I will feel the need to apply makeup when I am basically melting from the heat. I very rarely wear make-up at home so it doesn’t really make that much difference to me.

I always make a list of things to take and I try to stick to it but it doesn’t always work. As we will be on the move every few days, it makes sense to pack as light as possible. I have been having a personal struggle about whether to take my electric tooth brush or not. On the one hand, it does mean that I have to take yet another charging cable with me (along with phone charger, battery pack for my camera, activity tracker, Kindle etc) but I think that it is the type of luxury that I don’t think that I can go without for five weeks. Plus oral hygiene, as dentists will tell you, is not a part-time hobby so I am almost 100% decided that it will be coming with me.

I read once that for these longer trips, you should pack everything once and then take everything out of the suitcase and take half of the clothes and double the amount of money. This is probably very good advice. There have been more than a few times when I have got back home from a trip to find at least three articles of clothing stuffed in the bottom of my bag that I haven’t used and that I forgot I had even packed.

However, and let’s face it, if I had double the amount of money available, I would be going for double the amount of time. Perhaps only the advice about the number of clothes applies to me.

I will attempt to be very strict with my packing, as I have been with my travel planning, but good intentions and all that. I still have about five weeks to agonise about what and what not to take. Do you see now why this is the part that I dislike the most?

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Article writing

10 Jan

As part of my increasingly desperate attempt to forge a career of some sort in the world of writing, I have started to write articles for my friend’s tea website. I noticed that the blog section of the website hadn’t been updated in a while, so I asked (rather cheekily) if I could write some articles for him. I was delighted that he said yes! After 35 years on this planet, I am finally beginning to understand that the phrase “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” has more than a grain of truth to it.

I never knew that tea was so complicated and how many different types of tea there are. I have had to do quite a bit of research about tea because, apart from liking to drink it by the bucketful, I didn’t know too much about it. There are some very technical aspects to brewing tea, which have been fascinating to learn.

At first I was hoping that I would be able to write about one to two articles per week but work and other commitments very easily get in the way. It’s also easy to make excuses to not write anything. Slowly, I am learning to get into the habit and I am finding that I have more and more ideas about what to write and what people might like to read and learn about tea.

However, I am still writing a bit less than I was hoping to but at least I am writing something. The feedback is that the articles seems to be well received by people on social media and the website, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

Now, here comes the plug. If you are interested in having high quality teas delivered directly to your door, then you should definitely check out Tèaura. First founded in Zürich, Switzerland, all of the teas have been hand-selected from Taiwan, China, Japan and South Africa and can now be shipped worldwide. There is also a UK-based website (www.teaura.co), if you are based outside of Switzerland.

If you look hard enough, you might also find something written by yours truly.

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Photo Credit: Jamie McKee @ Tèaura

#40Before40: Challenge #9

6 Jan

The ninth challenge on my #40Before40 list is to write a novel. This has been something that I have always wanted to do and I have always put off because of my lack of self confidence and a little bit of lack of discipline. When I was younger, I used to like writing stories and making things up but, as I have got older, I have found excuses not to do more writing but this is still a dream of mine.

A lot of people have looked at me in horror when I have told them that this is on the list. The main thing to remember is that it does have to be any good. I only have to write it. I never said anything about being published. This might be a bit of a cop out but this is definitely my line of thinking: get the thing written and then take it from there.

As I mentioned, the key to this task is to get into a habit and develop discipline. It is possible to write a book in six months if you write a regular amount each day. November is also National Novel Writing Month, which was started in the States. In this challenge, you have to wrote about 1,500 words a day for the whole month of November, so that in the end you have a 45,000 word novel. 1,500 words a day is not a lot in theory. Of course, if you then come to a part of the story that you are having trouble with, it could take you an hour to write 200 words.

In an attempt to ease myself into this challenge and to develop my self disciple, I have joined a writing group. We meet every Wednesday at a very interesting place which describes itself as Bar, Bücher und Bühne (in English, Bar, Books and Stage). It’s a book stop but a café and bar and they also hold more creative and arty events, which is the stage part.

I was nervous at joining at first. I had never been to anything like this before but I already knew roughly the format of the session. To begin with we decide on a writing prompt and we have 15 minutes to write about it. A writing prompt is a topic or idea that you use to spark creative ideas and writing. It can be one word, a quotation or even a picture. For example, last week the prompt was “Christmas emergency”. At the end of the 15 minutes, we are free to share what we have written, if we want to. I haven’t yet shared anything that I have written. All of the other members of the group are far too good and I feel like I would sound a bit silly in comparison to what they have written. But they have been part of the group for a lot longer than me and a few of them have given up working to write. In my world that is living the dream.

It is always interesting to hear the different interpretations of the prompts. With “Christmas emergency” one girl wrote about someone going into labour, one guy wrote about the Christmas tree accidentally being set on fire and I wrote about someone opening a very expensive bottle of champagne by mistake. I guess this all depends on how you interpret the word “emergency”. I think this reveals a bit too much about my personal preferences.

After a break, we have between 30 and 40 minutes to write on something that we are working on. Some people work on novels, others on non-fiction articles and I am still yet to decide what I want to work on. I have some ideas for novels but I am a bit unsure if I should plan the whole novel out or just go for it and start writing. For the time being, I have been trying to work on some short stories, with varying degrees of success.

My main problem is that I can’t seem to finish anything. I get half way through a story and get stuck, not on what I want to write, but on how I want to write it and then I never finish it because I take this as a sign what I am writing can’t be all that good. One advantage of the group is being able to talk about these problems. One guy told me that every first draft is rubbish but you have to get something down on paper before you can begin to improve it. It is more than a good point; it’s the truth.

Having said that I have completed the first writing project I have started since I was at school. I have written a bedtime story book of short stories for my niece for Christmas. I am more than sure that no publisher would even consider looking at but my niece likes it and that is enough for me. Unfortunately, my children’s story book is not more than 50’000. So, the challenge is not yet complete. In the meantime, I will keep writing and look for inspiration for my first novel.

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Good Luck for the year ahead!

2 Jan

Although I have been in Switzerland for New Year for the last three years, this year I learnt something new about what charms the Swiss think will bring good luck.

I went to a friend’s house on New Year’s Eve, where there was, what I can only describe as paraphernalia, to help predict what the year ahead will bring. This was a spoon, small bits of metal (which type I am not sure), a candle and a bowl of water. The basic idea is that you put a piece of the metal on the spoon and heat this over the candle. When the metal is melted, you pour the molten liquid into the water. The shape that the metal makes is then a prediction of what will happen to you for the next year. There is a small interpretation book provided, so you can check out the meanings.

My form looked like a rain drop or a meteor. These shapes weren’t described in the interpretation booklet so I settle for on it looking like a ball. This means that I should play more sport in the upcoming year. This is probably a fair assessment and much more preferable than what the two other options could signify: namely, spending a lot more time in the rain or the end of the world as we know it is right around the corner.

I have never seen or heard of this before, but the kits are available in the local supermarkets. It was interesting to see how many different forms and shapes were made. Of course, it is just a bit of fun but at a party, it was an interesting ice-breaker.

I was also handed a miniature figure of a chimney sweep. Apparently, in Germany and Switzerland, the chimney sweep is a very lucky symbol – a bit like a four-leaf clover. I think that this was doubly lucky for me because I was given the figure by an actual chimney sweep.

img_9896As I had never heard of the connection of luck with a chimney sweep before, I decided to do a bit of research on the Internet before. Because, as is often the case, when I asked why a chimney sweep has a connection to good luck in Switzerland and Germany, no one could actually give me an answer. I was met with a shrug, a blank facial expression and the answer “I’m not really sure. We just always hand them out at this time of year.”

So, I found out that a chimney sweep is good luck for purely pragmatic reasons. If a chimney was blocked, it meant that you would not be able to cook anymore and so you would have to get the chimney sweep to come round. Once the flue was cleaned, you could carry on eating again. Hurray! It also meant that there was less chance of the house catching fire because of the soot stuck in the chimney.

I think the connection is completely charming. It is a shame that this is a profession which is possibly in decline, as we tend not to have houses with fire places, as we did in the olden days. But through the giving of these charms the legend will live on for generations to come.

I am a firm believer in the phrase that you make your own luck, but it still nice to have a few good luck charms tucked away just in case.

New Year’s Resolution

1 Jan

As I am still very much trying to tick off all of the items on my #40Before40 list, I don’t think that I have any need to have very serious New Year’s Resolution because quite a lot of the items on the list will keep me going for the next four New Years.

I have, however, decided to make a conscious effort to get more sleep. I wrote an article about this towards the end of last year, especially how modern technology is having an adverse effect on my sleeping habits.

There is also research to suggest that lack of sleep can make you put on weight because when you feel tired, your body thinks that this is because you have a lack of sugar in your system and so you crave food. This can lead to overeating and weight gain. I thought at first that this was just a rumour with no truth to it. But I have found myself on a few occasions wondering why I feel so hungry. I then realise that this is purely due to the fact that I am tired rather than hungry.

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So, to help reduce my weight and to tell me get more rest at time, I will be trying to get to bed before 10pm, without laptop, phone or other electronic sleep-stealing device at least 3 nights during the week. This should mean that I get at least 8 hours sleep for 3 nights in the week, which would be a big step forward.

Over the past few months, I think that I have had as little as 5.5 hours per night on some weeks. I know that if I get into a good routine at the start of the year that I will be on track to carry it on in the following months. In no time, I should be getting my 40 winks.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions this year? Are you also resolving to get more sleep? Quit smoking? Get fit? Or do you have something more interesting that you are going to try to achieve in 2018?